This story was created for the Google Expeditions project by ePublishing Partners, now available on Google Arts & Culture
The Japanese people are known for their deep appreciation for the beauty to be found in nature. This appreciation is expressed in many ways.
In the designs used on fabrics, in a centuries-long tradition of gardening, and in seasonal celebrations such as the springtime cherry blossom festival.
The Japanese also value the wider natural world and have created national parks and monuments to protect local landscapes. Shiraito Falls, in Shizuoka Prefecture, southwest of Mount Fuji, presents one such landscape.
One of hundreds of waterfalls in mountainous Japan, Shiraito Falls is both a Japanese National Monument and a sacred site. Hasegawa Kakugyō, a 16th century mystic, is said to have meditated at the falls before receiving a vision of Mount Fiji as a god.
The name Shiraito means “white threads,” and as you can see, the water appears to fall in hundreds of thin silken threads across the 200m-wide face of the falls.
Gaze into the rock pool below Shiraito falls and it’s possible that you’ll see one of Japan’s indigenous trout. The Yamame trout inhabits mountain streams and rivers all over Japan—in fact, this swift swimmer is known as the “Queen of Mountain Streams.”
Olive green with black spots, the Yamame can appear golden in sunlight. You may think it is beautiful. The Japanese, who are among the biggest fish eaters in the world, think it is delicious.
Among the vegetation that surrounds and tops the weeping wall of Shiraito Falls are many maple trees. As their leaves turn in autumn, the falls descend through a blaze of color.
Fujisan Hongu Sengentaisha
Shinto is a spiritual tradition indigenous to Japan. As a formal religion, its origins date back at least to the 6th century B.C.E. , but it’s central beliefs were taking shape two centuries before that.
At the heart of Shinto are kami, spirits who involve themselves with people and their lives. Kami dwell in nature—in plants, animals, rivers, oceans, mountains, and natural events like storms and earthquakes.
Shinto followers worship and address the kami through ceremonies and rituals often held in shrines. Fujisan Hongu Sengentaisha is a Shinto shrine (taisha means “great shrine”) devoted to the goddess of Mount Fuji, Princess Konohanasakuya.
You enter the Fujisan Hongu Sengentaisha complex through the Tower Gate. The gate stands approximately 13 meters high and 7 meters wide. Its curved roof is thatched with bark from white cedar trees, called hinoki in Japanese.
The Outer Shrine presents an example of irimoya style architecture, typified by its roof. The roof slopes down on all 4 sides, but on the front and back there is a partial gable—the flat vertical triangle you can see above the main door.
This centuries-old building style came to Japan from China. If you could pass through the Outer Shrine, you would arrive at the Inner Shrine, or honden—but that is the home of the kami, and only Shinto priests are allowed to enter.
The cherry blossom is the symbol of Princess Konohanasakuya, and there are over 1,500 cherry trees in and around the shrine complex. The annual cherry blossom viewing in April is only one of over 150 festivals held at Fujisan Hongu Sengentaisha throughout the year.
Others include a festival of horseback archery, a rice planting festival, and festivals that mark the opening and closing of the Mount Fuji climbing period.
Yoshida Lava Tree Molds
At several locations on the northern and north-western foot of Mount Fuji, you can visit tree mold caves, or Funatsu tainai (funatsu means 'womb'). These caves were formed hundrends of years ago when flowing lava from the erupting volcano drowned the forest on the lower slopes.
The trees burned away as the lava hardened, leaving tubular cavities. The tree mold caves were discovered in 1673 by Fuji-ko adherents; people who worshipped the spirits of Mount Fuji. Today the Japanese recognise the caves as a National Monument.
To enter the tree caves, you pass through a shrine. In the Shinto tradition, the caves are seen as one dwelling place of Konohanasakuya, the goddess of Mount Fuji, to whom the shrine is devoted. Pilgrims once stopped here to pray for protection before climbing the mountain. In recent years, the caves have been closed to the public, but in an effort to preserve them.
Lava tree caves are extremely rare. Buried in the Kenmarubi lava field, they form a network of narrow tunnels, empty except for the cool air that rushes through them. If you look closely at the lava-black walls, you can clearly see the impression of the tree bark that was burnt away by the hot engulfing lava.
Kitaguchi Hongu Fuji Sengenjinjya
Kitaguchi Hongu Fuji Sengenjinja is a Shinto shrine located in Fujiyoshida City at the northern base of Mount Fuji. Sengen is a Shinto branch dedicated to Konohanasakuya, the deity associated with Mount Fuji. Jinja is the Japanese word for “shrine.”
The structures in the shrine complex date back to the 16th and 17th centuries, but the site on which they are located was considered sacred long before the shrine built. There are over 1,200 Sengen shrines in Japan, and almost all of them are within site of the mountain.
The Main Temple Building
The main temple building was built in 1615 in the Momoyama style. This was an ostentatious style of art and architecture that featured opulent decoration and lavish use of gold.
You can see this style most clearly in the elaborate roof structure and decorative carvings above the temple’s entrance.
In the shrine’s courtyard stand 3 enormous cedar trees, each over 1,000 years old. The largest tree is about 23 meters in diameter. The entire shrine complex stands in a dense cedar forest, and the massive trees in the courtyard are said to protect the shrine.
Cedar trees—sugi no ki in Japanese—are indigenous to Asia and have long been valued in Japan as a building material and as sacred natural objects.
Midsummer in Japan is the season of purification, when people all across the country participate in a ritual to wash away their misdeeds and to protect themselves from bad fortune.
If you join them and visit a Shinto shrine at this time, you’ll see a large ring made of grass or reeds—a chinowa—set before the entrance to the shrine’s temple building.
Worshippers step through the ring and recite a special verse. Grass rings appear in Japanese folk legends as “good luck charms.”
The Fifth Station
The ascent of Mount Fuji is divided into 10 Stations. Although it is possible to hike from the 1st Station, most climbers take a bus to the 5th Station, and continue on foot from there. There are actually 4 different 5th Stations, all at an elevation of about 2,300 meters.
You are looking at the Fuji Subaru Line 5th Station on the northern slope of the mountain. The Fuji Subaru Line is the name of the roadway that leads to the Station.
Mount Fuji sits close to the Pacific coast of central Honshu, Japan’s big island. For people all around the world, this mountain, with its snow-covered slopes and symmetrical conical shape, is a symbol of Japan.
For centuries, Fuji has served as a sacred symbol for the Japanese people. One of Japan’s “holy mountains” (Mount Tateyama, and Mount Hakusan are 2 others), Mount Fuji has special significance in both the Shinto and Japanese Buddhist traditions.
The mountain has also been the subject of innumerable works by Japanese artists, including Hokusai (1760-1849), who depicted the mountain as seen from 36 different viewpoints. Today, Mount Fuji is one of Japan’s most popular tourist sites.
The official climbing season at Mount Fuji runs from July to September. During this period, thousands of tourists make the bus ride to Fuji Subaru Line 5th Station to pick up the Yoshida trail, the most popular trail to Fuji’s summit.
In recent years, between 250,000 and 300,000 climbers have made the ascent each year. In mid-August, traffic on the trails can be “bumper to bumper.”
Shops at the Fuji Subaru Line 5th Station sell food and souvenirs. Also hiking equipment—it is not unusual for would-be climbers to arrive at the Station completely unprepared for the climb.
Climbers and the Climb
From Fuji Subaru Line 5th Station, climbers have a 5 to 7 hour hike on the Yoshida trail to the summit. Many climbers set out at about 4:00 p.m., climb until sundown, spend the night at a lodge or hut on the trail.
And continue climbing very early in the morning to arrive at the summit for sunrise. Sunrise seen from the summit of Mount Fuji is considered so special by the Japanese that is has its own word—goraiko.
The red structure at the entrance to the alleyway between shops is a torii, or gateway, and it marks the approach to a shrine. Walk down the alley, and you will arrive at the Mount Fujiyama Komitake shrine.
Mount Fuji covers several earlier mountains, including Mount Komitake and Ko-Fuji (Old Fuji). Repeated eruptions of those volcanic mountains eventually gave shape to Fuji.
Komitake shrine is dedicated to mountain spirits called tengu. In the Shinto tradition, tengu were, among other things, path builders.
Mount Fuji Summit
You have finally arrived at the summit of Mount Fuji! You set off early yesterday morning from the 5th Station—the ascent up the mountain is divided into 10 Stations, and most hikers begin the climb at the 5th Station.
You and your companions spent last evening in a comfortable lodge and got up early to complete the climb. The trail was steep and rocky at a few points, but overall, the climb wasn’t too tough. Now you’re a bit out of breath—but is it the high elevation or the breathtaking views?
Throughout Japan’s long history, pilgrims have made the climb to the summit of Mount Fuji in devotion to the nature goddess Sengen-Sama, the mountain goddess Konohanasakuya, and to the other spirits, or kami, of the mountain.
These days, as many as 300,000 tourists make the hike up the mountain each year. Trails range in distance from 10 to about 19 km, and many hikers break the climb up over 2 days, eating and resting at a guesthouse along the way.
The Ground Beneath Your Feet
Mount Fuji is Japan’s highest mountain at 3,776.24 meters. It is also an active volcano—though perhaps that fact is not so special. After all, Japan has over 100 active volcanoes, about 1/10 of all the active volcanoes in the world!
Fuji’s summit is entirely bare of vegetation, and everywhere underfoot you see rock and more rock. This rock is special in a way—it is basalt lava, while most of Japan’s other volcanoes are made of andesite.
Things to do on Mount Fuji
There are many structures at the top of Mount Fuji. If you’ve eaten all your trail mix and chocolate bars, you can head to one of the lodges serving noodles and soup.
Maybe you’d like to send a postcard back home bragging about your success in reaching the top of Japan’s tallest mountain? Well, believe it or not, the Mount Fuji Summit Post Office is open daily from 6:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. (summer only).
You could also pay your respects to the spirits of the mountain at the Sengen shrine. And at any of these locations, you can take a selfie and send it off to friends: since July, 2015, the summit of Mount Fuji is equipped with Wi-Fi.